The Santa Maria Minyan
Roberto Loiederman, Jewish Journal,
If he did, indeed, have Jewish ancestors, de la Peña was determined to learn what the religion meant, so he became more and more involved with Judaism. “I put Jewish holy objects in my house — a menorah, holiday decorations,” he said. “I stopped eating pork. I started to light candles on Friday night. I was still in the Pentecostal church at the time, so there were those in the church that made my life miserable.”
Finally, de la Peña wrote a letter to the elders, telling them he wanted to leave the church for good. In response, some threw eggs at his home, secretly fed his kids sandwiches with pork, and prohibited their children from playing with his children. De la Peña apologized to his family for what they went through, but he felt he had to stop hiding who he was.
Once he was away from the Pentecostal church, de la Peña got involved with Messianic Judaism, a growing movement whose adherents observe elements of Judaism: They pray in Hebrew, observe Shabbat, maintain kashrut, adore Israel and celebrate Jewish holidays. But, they also venerate Yeshua — Jesus Christ. Messianic Judaism, especially when practiced by Latinos, seems to grow out of a desire to live the life that Yeshua and his disciples lived, which was that of observant Jews.
De la Peña is very much aware that others might suspect his group of being Messianic Jews. He said emphatically that they are not. “We passed through a period with Messianic Judaism and realized it was not what we were looking for,” he said. “Once I began studying Judaism seriously, I realized that it’s very different — and a lot more — than the Judaism presented by the Messianic Jewish groups.”
The next step for de la Peña was to attend what at the time was the one shul in Santa Maria, a Reform congregation.
“These people are also Children of Israel,” the rabbi told the congregants. Nevertheless, de la Peña and those with him felt uncomfortable, largely because the service was in English.
Eventually, with the support of his family and friends, de la Peña founded the Beth Shalom minyan. The congregation is far from wealthy, but all the families contribute.
Occasionally, Spanish-speaking Rabbi Daniel Mehlman, who officiates at Studio City’s Congregation Beth Meier, visits Santa Maria and offers guidance to those in the community who have embarked on the conversion process. Mehlman said that this group’s members “come from an observant [Christian] tradition,” which may account for — in Mehlman’s words — their “genuine spiritual yearnings.”
Mehlman pointed out that the process they went through is the opposite of what early Christians experienced. What he means is that Jesus and his disciples were Jews. In time, as the figure of Jesus became imbued with divine properties, his followers became known as Jewish Christians. Eventually, as the religion spread among those who had never been Jewish, its followers were simply called Christians.
The Santa Maria Jews have gone in the other direction. They started out as Christians, after which they pursued Messianic Judaism — at that stage, one could have called them Jewish Christians. Then, shedding any attachment to Yeshua, they became simply Jews.
On Friday nights, the Beth Shalom community gathers for Shabbat services. De la Peña’s oldest daughter, 17-year-old Erandy, chants the biblical portions — in Hebrew — with skill and beauty. It’s hard to listen to Erandy, to experience the community’s earnestness, and not be touched.
Mehlman is also moved by the group. “They’re thoroughly committed to their Judaism,” Mehlman said. “The amount they invest in their religious institution, proportionally, is astounding. They do everything possible to create a comfortable home for themselves as Jews, which is hard to do in a place like Santa Maria.”
Mehlman listened as Erandy chanted. “Amazing, isn’t she? Her father’s Mexican, her mother’s Filipina … and she’s 100 percent Jewish. It brings up the question: What do Jews look like?”
Mehlman opened his arms, palms up, indicating the entire Beth Shalom community. “The answer is: They look like this.”